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Idaho Shakespeare Festival Embraces Pop Culture This Summer

2013 season features Much Ado About Nothing and Sweeney Todd


Sharing a dog-eared libretto, actors Tom Ford and Sara Bruner have spent lots of late spring afternoons singing about Mrs. Lovett's pies, preparing for Idaho Shakespeare Festival's big summer musical: Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

"We have scheduled our own rehearsal time before we go into rehearsal," said Bruner. "It's abnormal, I think, to work as much as we've been working ahead of time."

As the principal characters in Stephen Sondheim's bloody thriller, Ford and Bruner practice their performances two to three days each week. Ford plays the maniacal murderer Sweeney Todd, who, with the help of Bruner as Mrs. Lovett, slices the throats of unwitting men expecting a simple barbershop shave.

"I love horror, it's my total favorite genre. I love any scary movie; I love blood and guts; I love all that stuff," said Bruner.

Songs like the macabre "A Little Priest," about the human meats in Mrs. Lovett's pies, require Ford and Bruner to sing in tandem.

"It's a style of theater that Stephen Sondheim is hearkening back to, these penny dreadful novels of the time; the gothic horror," said ISF Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee. "But they also have this over-the-top theatricality, so while the events are horrific, the music goes from both super dramatic and really emotionally moving to very funny."

Fee acknowledged that Sweeney Todd will be the season's most complicated production, requiring actors skilled in performing and singing, an eight-piece orchestra and an elaborate stage design.

"We picked it this year because we feel we've got the company for it," said Fee. "We've been doing enough work in musical theater that we feel we've got our arms around this stuff and we know Sondheim's work--and so it was just the right moment," said Fee.

To bring the story to life, scenic designer Jeff Herrmann has envisioned Todd's barber shop on a second level above the stage, allowing Ford to slice the throats of his victims before pulling a lever and dropping the body down to the bakery.

"It's an eight-foot drop from the chair to the room below," said Herrmann.

The set will also feature Victorian-era elements with a steampunk flair. Windows and walls at a slant will add what Herrmann calls an "impressionistic approach" to the stage design. And then, of course, there's the blood.

"We'll spend a lot of time talking about blood, and how to make the blood look as realistic as possible," Herrmann said.

While Tim Burton's 2007 silver screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd featured both Johnny Depp and buckets of gore, Fee stressed the ISF production can't approach that level of blood-soaked realism.

"You're in a live theater. It's never going to be the kind of gore that you experience in a film because we can't create that kind of realism, nor do we even attempt to do that," said Fee.

But Sweeney Todd isn't the only ISF production this season with contemporary ties. A chance discovery in 2012 of the remains of British ruler Richard III buried beneath a parking lot brought new life to Shakespeare's drama, Richard III, while the Bard's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, received a reprisal in Joss Whedon's modern, black-and-white film, set to hit theaters in June.

And kicking off ISF's 2013 season Saturday, June 1, is Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, a comedic romp directed by Fee that involves mystics and spectral visitors.

"Noel Coward is an iconic figure in theater," said Fee. "He wrote this play in 1941, right in the middle of World War II. In fact, he wrote the play having left London because his apartment was bombed."

In the play, novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth arrange a dinner and seance with a local clairvoyant named Madame Arcati, hoping to gather material for Charles' latest book. But from the spirit world, Arcati conjures up the ghost of Charles' first wife, Elvira, who is hell-bent on disrupting her former husband's new marriage.

"It's a nightmare, but it's hysterically funny," said Fee.

Blithe Spirit will play in rep with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which opens Saturday, June 8, and is set in an Italian villa during World War I. Sweeney Todd opens Saturday, July 6, and will boast the largest number of performances. Given Sweeney Todd's subject matter, ISF recommends ages 14 and up, "due to violence and mature themes."

"This is a very problematic thing--how you recommend ages for people in the theater. We never used to do it, but the fact is, audiences over time asked for it, essentially," said Fee.

Richard III, Shakespeare's play about the king's duplicitous rise to power, features 21 actors and opens Saturday, Aug. 10. The production, directed by Joseph Hanreddy, will boast more modern attire and take place in a contemporary setting. Richard III also has a 14-and-up age recommendation.

"It'll look like contemporary military in some ways, but without being so specific that you feel like you're located in Britain during the Falklands War. It's a way of saying to the audience, 'Look these plays are just as immediate to us today as they were in Shakespeare's time,'" said Fee.

Ending the season, Larry Shue's madcap comedy The Foreigner opens Saturday, Sept. 7.

According to Fee, almost 60,000 visitors attended Idaho Shakespeare Festival productions in the summer of 2012, which represents a 13 percent increase over the company's 2011 numbers. By comparison, the first season in 1977 drew only 3,000 attendees.

"We've had tremendous growth over the years. We're kind of bursting at the seams a little bit," said Fee.